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   Chapter 21 DR. COOPER.

The Last Tenant By B. L. Farjeon Characters: 19830

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


I caught my breath. There was nothing strange in the information; for all I knew Mr. Nisbet might have been in London for years, as ignorant of my existence as, until lately, I had been of his; but the accidental discoveries of the last few hours seemed to me to be pregnant with important possibilities.

"I am glad you have lost no time in telling me," I said. "How did you discover it?"

"Almost by accident. I have a partner, whose methods are of the quiet order, I being the active worker in our business, and it is he who made the discovery--almost by accident, as I have said. Nisbet is not a very uncommon name, but tack Oliver to it, and it becomes exceptional. Yesterday there arrived from the Continent a gentleman bearing those two names, and he is now at the H?tel Métropole."

This destroyed the hypothesis that Mr. Nisbet had been a constant resident in London since my introduction to the skeleton cat.

"From what part of the Continent?" I inquired.

"Lastly from Paris; but by way of Paris from any one of a hundred different places. Can you give me a personal description of the gentleman?"

"No," I replied, "I have never seen him; but I can obtain it for you."

"Do so, and let me have it as soon as possible. At present my partner is shadowing him, and he will not be lost sight of. You will never guess where I have just come from, Mr. Emery."

"I shall be glad to hear."

"In the course of such a business as ours," said Mr. Dickson, "we become acquainted with strange things, which, as a rule, we keep to ourselves, secrecy being an integral part of our operations. Some cases take hold of us, some do not, and I confess that my curiosity--a human weakness, you know--has been excited in this particular case. So, after leaving your house, the idea entered my mind of strolling to Lamb's Terrace and having a look at No. 79. That is where I have just come from."

"You have not been inside the house," I said, rather startled, as I thought of Bob and Barbara.

"How could I get inside," he retorted, "without the key? What a melancholy, Heaven-forsaken place! I will tell you what occurred to me, if you like."

"Yes, tell me."

"Just the spot for a crime, thought I as I wandered about; just the spot to carry out a deep-laid scheme in comparative safety. I have no wish to pry into your secrets, Mr. Emery; but one cannot help what comes unbidden into one's mind, and men engaged in such pursuits as mine are more open to suspicion than others. We see shadows behind locked doors, we work out theories in the dark, and sometimes we come upon unexpected results. However, it is no affair of mine, as my own personal interests are not involved in it."

"If they were," I hazarded, "you would follow it up."

"Undoubtedly. I could not possibly evade the duty, with three such links as a sudden death, a cremation instead of a burial, and a vast fortune on the issue."

"And if you were to add," I thought, "the experiences I have gone through, you would be still less inclined to rest till the mystery was unraveled." Aloud I said, "Do not let the matter flag for a few pounds. I am most anxious to work it out, if there is a possibility of doing so."

"It shall not flag. The mischief of it is, the most important clews are destroyed. Only through the principal agent can the crime--if one has been committed--be brought to light."

"Or through an accomplice," I suggested.

"Quite so. But where to look for this accomplice--there lies the difficulty. Still it is the unexpected that often happens. Well, good-day, Mr. Emery; I hope to hear from you to-morrow."

Theobald's Row, South Lambeth, if not so desolate a neighborhood as Lamb's Terrace, was sufficiently depressing in its general aspect to cause one to resolve to give it a wide berth unless special business called him to the spot. There were sad, melancholy railway arches which might serve for a chapter in a modern "Inferno"; there were timber yards stacked high with discolored lumber, which appeared to be piled up not for purposes of trade, but to add one more melancholy feature to a worn-out, dilapidated locality; there were workingmen's lodging houses, whose flat surface of stone walls resembled prisons in which every vestige of brightness in life was hopelessly entombed; there were rows of houses as hopeless and despairing, and as poverty-stricken and irremediably shabby; and there was the most leaden atmosphere of which even London could boast. The men, women, and children I saw there were in keeping with their surroundings; the youngsters were playing listlessly and with no heart in their games; the men smoked pipes and haunted street corners or wandered in and out the beer shops and public houses; the worn-faced women conversed jadedly and dispiritedly; and everywhere the spirit of discontent proclaimed itself. Even the dogs nosing the gutters were infected with the prevailing gloom.

In the center of Theobald's Row, which consisted of sixteen small houses, eight on each side, and all of a flat dead level, I came upon Dr. Cooper's place of business, a parlor window, with two large dust-covered bottles displayed therein, whose ghostly colors were green and red. Half a dozen ragged children were disporting themselves on the doorstep, and as I approached the shop a slatternly woman came to the door and swooped them all into the house. As she was turning to follow them I accosted her.

"Is Dr. Cooper at home?"

"What do you want of him?" she retorted.

"I wish to see him on a matter of business."

I had stepped into the shop, and as I looked around at the nearly empty shelves, dotted here and there with a few miserable fly-blown bottles, I thought that a man in search of health or of a remedy for a bodily ailment could not have found a more unlikely place for relief.

"Is it opening medicine?" said the woman. "I can serve you."

"My business is not professional," I replied.

She cast a suspicious glance at me, and I guessed that she supposed me to be a dun.

"It may be something of advantage to him," I observed.

She brightened up instantly.

"My husband is not in," she said; "but you may find him at the George."

"At the George?"

"Or the Green Dragon," she added.

"Where are they? Far from here?"

"Oh, no, not far; he has to keep himself handy in case he is called in anywhere. The George is at the corner of the next street, and the Green Dragon is at the opposite corner. If he is not at either of those places he is sure to be at the Britannia. Anybody will tell you where that is."

As I walked to "the corner of the next street" I could not help smiling at the idea of Dr. Cooper being so considerate as to pass his time in a public house, within convenient hail of his place of business, in case he might be "called in anywhere"; but I pitied those who needed his assistance in a case of sickness. He was not at the George, and I was advised to try the Green Dragon; he was not at the Green Dragon, and I was advised to try the Britannia; and at the Britannia I found him.

He was a washed-out, weedy man, with an inflamed countenance, and when I presented myself he was in the act of clinking pewter pots with some boon companions, who, according to my judgment, were standing treat to him. He drained his pot to the dregs, and turned it upside down on the counter, with a thirsty air about him notwithstanding the long draught he had just taken. I am not a teetotaler, nor an advocate of teetotalism, but it has always been a matter of regret to me that the persevering search for enlightenment on the part of the British public at the bottom of pewter pots does not lead to more encouraging results.

At the moment of my entrance he and his companions were discussing a criminal case which had excited great interest and had largely occupied the newspapers for several days past. It was a supposed case of poisoning, and the person charged--it was a woman--had been acquitted after a long trial. Her husband had been the victim; but the medical evidence was inconclusive, and she had been given the benefit of the doubt. The woman and her husband had been on proved bad terms, and she had much to gain by his death. There was a man in the case, the woman's lover, and there was a strong suspicion that he was implicated; but, guilty or not guilty, he was not arraigned because no direct evidence could be brought against him. Only on the previous night had the case been concluded, and the result was published in the Sunday morning's papers, the jury having been locked up for eight hours before they arrived at their verdict.

"She's escaped by the skin of her teeth," said one of the topers. "If I'd been on the jury she'd have had the rope."

"Law's law," said a half-tipsy Solon, "and justice is justice. I don't believe in hanging a woman upon presumption. My opinion is that he poisoned himself to get rid of her."

"That's a queer way of getting rid of a nuisance," was the reply. "Besides, there was no poison found in the body."

"You're all at sixes and sevens," said a third speaker. "The doctors disagreed, and the weight of evidence was in favor of the woman. She's as artful as you make 'em; but that's no reason for hanging her."

"The man was killed," persisted the first speaker. "He didn't die a natural death."

"Nothing was proved," said the third speaker, "and when nothing's proved you can't bring anyone in guilty. This is a free country, I believe."

What struck me in the expression of these opinions--if opinions they could be called--was their utterly illogical bearing. It was like a lot of weathercocks arguing; and when the half-tipsy Solon said, "Ask the doctor," they turned toward him, as though a direct question had been put to him, which he, as a weighty authority, could answer in a word, and thus settle the whole matter.

"What I say

is," said Dr. Cooper thirstily and with indistinct utterance, "that there are more ways of killing a man than one."

"Ah," they all observed in effect, "Dr. Cooper knows."

What it was that Dr. Cooper knew with respect to the case was not very clear. What I knew, when I heard him speak, was that he was drunk. Quickly came to my mind the suggestion whether he would be of more service to me drunk than sober.

"Who's going to stand treat?" he inquired, with a nervous fingering of his pewter pot.

"Your turn, doctor," they said.

"If it's my turn," he replied pettishly, "you'll have to wait."

They laughed, and left him one by one. Then he asked for liquor across the counter; but the barman shook his head and devoted himself to ready-money customers. I saw my opportunity, and advancing toward him, asked if he would join me in a friendly glass.

"In a friendly glass," he said, "I would join Old Nick himself."

A declaration which, frank as it was, could scarcely be said to be a recommendation. It was a peculiar feature of Dr. Cooper's tipsy condition that, although his speech was thick and somewhat indistinct, he did not slur or clip his words, which denoted that he still preserved some control over himself.

"Beer or whisky, doctor?" I asked.

"Whisky for choice," he said. "Irish."

Whisky it was, and Irish; I spilled mine on the floor, and filled my glass with water. Dr. Cooper dealt with his as he dealt with the beer; it was evidently not his habit to take two bites at a cherry.

"Another?" I suggested.

"You're a gentleman," he said.

When he had disposed of this second portion in a similar manner to the first, I opened the ball, and inwardly took credit to myself for rather artful tactics.

"I came down this way, doctor," I said, "especially to see you."

He seized my wrist with one hand, and put the other into his waistcoat pocket, removing it immediately, however, with a husky cough and an angry shake of his head.

"No, no, doctor," I said, laughing, as he fumbled at my pulse, "I do not need professional advice to-day. The fact is, I have come to pay an old debt."

He retained my hand, as though to prevent my escaping him.

"You're one of the lot that has brought me down," he growled. "How much is it, and how long has it been due?"

"It has been due a long time past," I replied; "and the amount is two shillings, for two bottles of medicine and advice."

"Are you sure it isn't more?"

"Quite sure. I should have paid you before to-day, but when I went to your place--a long while ago, I must tell you--I found you had gone. You practiced in the north of London, you know."

"I do know; I have reason to know. If I had got my rights I should not be as I am. I should be practicing in Belgravia, and driving in my carriage. I'll take another whisky." I nodded at the barman, who refilled the glass, which he instantly emptied again. "What do we slave for? What do we study for? What do we waste the midnight oil for? To be taken in, to be robbed and swindled, to have promises made to us that are never fulfilled."

"Unfortunately," I said, sympathizing with him, "it is the way of the world. It is the simple-minded and the honest that are defrauded."

"You know how it is. Five shillings, you said."

"No; it is two shillings I owe you."

"Interest added, makes it three. You can't object to that."

"I don't object; here is the money."

He took it, and dropped it in his pocket. We had each of us only one disengaged hand, as he still kept hold of my wrist.

"A feeble pulse," he said, shaking his head with tipsy gravity, "a very feeble pulse. Needs a stimulant."

"Irish whisky?"

"Irish whisky," he echoed; and disposed of his fourth glass, while I spilled mine as I had done before.

These rapid potations had the effect I desired; they weakened his self-control, they loosened his tongue.

"That was an interesting discussion you were having," I observed, "when I came in. What was it you said? That there are more ways than one of killing a man. How true that is! But it is only those who are experienced in such matters that can speak with authority. Do you suspect, doctor, that the woman is guilty?"

"I will take my oath she is guilty."

"But the fact of poison being administered was not absolutely established."

He snapped his fingers. "That for being established! There are poisons and poisons; there are way and ways. Did you ever take a sleeping draught?"

"Never."

"Well, when you want one, come to me, and I will give you something that will make you sleep so sound that you will never wake up again."

"Declined with thanks. But would it not be discovered?"

"It might or it mightn't. Suppose it is discovered that you died of an overdose. Then comes the question, who administered it? When a man suffers from insomnia he doses himself as a rule, and if he overdoes it he has only himself to blame. There's the bottle at his bedside empty. There are the people who are interested--generally two, a man and a woman. If there are servants in the house they are asleep. What have they to do with it? The man, or the woman, does not wake up again. Now prove that the man, or the woman, who is left alive forced the sleeping draught down the other one's throat. You can't do it. I can tell you where you can buy some effervescent sleeping globules that you put in your mouth, and fall asleep while they are dissolving. One makes you sleep for six hours, two makes you sleep for ten hours, three makes you sleep for twenty, four makes you sleep forever. Some of us doctors have secrets that we keep to ourselves; make you as wise as we are, and where should we be? There was a case--I mention no names--of a man suffering under a painful disease which might run its course for months, perhaps years, before it prove fatal. Wife suggests that it would be a mercy to kill him, and so put him out of pain. A little syringe, a slight injection while the man is sleeping; it is done in a moment; the man is dead. The woman comes into a fortune, and marries her lover. Medical testimony, the disease from which the man has been suffering, and which must prove fatal some time or other. Quite natural. Everybody's happy, and nothing more is heard of the matter. There are other ways. Charcoal, which English people don't take to; escape of gas"--I caught my breath, but fortunately my sudden spasm passed unnoticed--"quite as easy, quite as natural. For one murder discovered, how many undiscovered? Work that out!"

"An interesting study for statisticians," I said.

"If they had the facts before them; but they can't get hold of them. There are liquid poisons that can be mixed with food, and are tasteless and colorless; they can be administered for months, and nobody the wiser. You may find a trace in the body after death, but not sufficient to account for what has taken place, not a twentieth part sufficient to account for it. There are others to weaken not only the body but the mind, to destroy memory, to make one oblivious of the past. Perfectly pleasant and painless. Now, what do you think of a man who knows what I know being in such a position as I am."

"It is disgraceful," I said.

"It is infamous. You are struggling, you are poor, you have a large family, you are fond of the pleasures of life. A person--again I mention no names--comes to you, and says such and such a thing--never mind what thing. This person is rich; you are in debt. I am only supposing a case, you know."

"Of course."

"The person says, there's a sudden death in my house--an accident, say by charcoal, say by gas. A pure accident, most lamentable. A doctor's testimony is required, for formality's sake. Any doctor will do. You are in the neighborhood. Will you testify? Fee, so many guineas, and afterward a lift up in life, a chance to get along. As our national poet expresses it, 'My poverty, but not my will, consents.' You do no wrong; the person is a gentleman, and you take his word; you testify at the inquest, and all is smooth sailing. The affair is forgotten. You receive your few guineas, and you wait for the chance to get along in life, for the lift up that will bring you a lucrative practice. It never comes. The person shrugs his shoulders, contradicts you, jockeys you. What's the consequence? Your suspicions are excited. The person inherits a great sum of money by the death. You ferret that out; your suspicions grow stronger. You go to the person, and you mention your suspicions. He says, 'You are putting yourself in danger; if you have given false evidence, the law will make you suffer for it; you are a fool and a knave. Get out!' You are bound to submit. What are your feelings toward the person who has treated you so shamefully? What would you do him if it was in your power?"

"I would certainly--supposing this not to be a hypothetical case----"

"Which it is," interposed Dr. Cooper, "purely hypothetical."

"Exactly. How could it be otherwise? But such conversations are most interesting to an outsider like myself. Supposing then, this not to be a hypothetical case, I would certainly be glad of any chance to be even with the person who has imposed upon me. Carrying the hypothesis further, what should you say became of the body of the--did you say a lady?"

"No, I don't think I said a lady; but let it be a lady, for the sake of argument."

"What became of the body--though that's a stupid question, because, of course, it was buried in the usual way?"

"It might not have been. There's such a thing as cremation."

What turn the conversation would have taken after this startling observation it is out of my power to say, for the slatternly wife of the doctor made her appearance here, and told my tipsy companion that a patient required his immediate attention.

An hour afterward I was once more in Lamb's Terrace.

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